Merseyside’s double threat: Ron Atkinson at Manchester United (Part Ten)

ron atkinson manchester united part eighteen

The first three months of 1985 saw some historical moments. The BBC launched a London based soap opera called “Eastenders”, shocking the TV audience with a murder in the first episode and setting the tone from the start. After one year, the Miners’ strike finished in early March and then on March 11th, Mohammed Al Fayed bought Harrods.

The very next evening Manchester United took to the field in North London to play title-chasing Tottenham Hotspur. A victory for the away side would also put them back into the mix, with Everton the favourites to win the league at this point.

The Red Devils left White Hart Lane with three points and were back in contention thanks to goals from two players who had both come through their youth ranks.

Welshman Mark Hughes was now established as a striker for the club after making his debut the previous season. Norman Whiteside had been part of the first team since 1982, and was in fine goalscoring form after his treble against West Ham three days before in the FA Cup quarter-final.

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The 2-1 win at Spurs gave United a chance in the league. They had a UEFA Cup quarter-final 2nd leg away to Videoton still to play and a FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool to come in April. Manager Ron Atkinson once again had United fighting on three fronts.

The fans were optimistic but wary. The previous season saw United go out in Europe at the semi-final stage and then finish fourth in a two horse race with Liverpool for the league. Their collapse from late March to early May in 1984 was made worse as Liverpool stumbled over the line to lift the title. The title had been in their grasp. In March 1985, their Anfield rivals were still in the European Cup as well as the FA Cup, but they didn’t look like winning the league for a fourth consecutive season.

The following night, the dark cloud of football hooliganism reared its ugly head once more. At Kenilworth Road, Luton Town hosted Millwall in the FA Cup. The game was marred by violence and the away fans made their way onto the pitch. A riot broke out and once again the sport was front page news for the wrong reasons.

United’s next game was in East London against Millwall’s rivals West Ham, who were out for revenge after their FA Cup loss at Old Trafford. Live on BBC One and on a Friday night, a win would really give Atkinson’s side the advantage, especially as Tottenham had the daunting task of playing away to Liverpool. Spurs had not won at Anfield since 1912.

Upton Park was always a ground where Manchester United had difficulties. So on a cold March night, with a passionate home crowd behind their team, it was never going to be easy. When Graeme Hogg was adjudged to have handled a Paul Allen effort, Ray Stewart gave the Hammers the lead from the penalty spot.

A setback of course, but after John Gidman whipped in a free-kick from the right, Frank Stapleton’s header brought the scores level. The sides went into the interval tied at one apiece. Eleven minutes after the break, West Ham were back in front. Paul Goddard fired a cross into the six yard area and Mike Duxbury diverted it past his own goalkeeper Gary Bailey to make it 2-1.

At this time only one substitute was allowed and for Manchester United, they had hope on the bench. Returning after injury was their captain Bryan Robson. Missing through a dislocated shoulder, he had put off surgery and let it heal naturally. It had taken just as long to come back as it would have if he had chosen the operation. The injury would return to haunt him.

Robson entered the field with his team chasing a second equaliser. Jesper Olsen took a corner to the near post, Robson headed home to make it 2-2 and save a point for the away team. The next day Everton drew 1-1 away to Aston Villa, but Spurs ended their Anfield hoodoo with a Garth Crooks goal giving them a 1-0 win. Tottenham and Everton were now level on points at the top.

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From East London to Hungary. Manchester United took their slender 1-0 home leg win to face Videoton in the UEFA Cup. The match went to extra-time after the home side matched United’s first leg score but neither side could find another goal and so the game finished 1-0. It was to be decided on penalties.

And that’s how they were eliminated from Europe, as they lost 5-4 on spot kicks. They would not play in Europe for another five years, when ironically they faced another Hungarian side in Pécsi Munkás. Two trophies left to play for, two Merseyside clubs standing in their way.

United rebounded perfectly the following Saturday when they destroyed Aston Villa 4-0 at Old Trafford. Hughes scored three in nine first half minutes before Whiteside added a fourth in the second half. But with Tottenham and Everton both registering impressive victories, Atkinson knew his side couldn’t afford to drop points.

By the time Big Ron took his place in the dugout at Anfield on the last day of March, Everton had extended their lead at the top the previous day after a 2-1 win over Southampton. Tottenham lost at home to Aston Villa 2-0. The live TV cameras were on hand to see United win 1-0 against Liverpool, thanks to another headed goal from Stapleton.

The matches were coming thick and fast. The midweek fixtures saw Everton move further ahead of Tottenham after the Toffees won 2-1 at White Hart Lane, in what was considered to be a title decider. This loss for Spurs allowed Manchester United to go second, with Stapleton scoring again in a 2-1 victory over Leicester City at Filbert Street. Everton were four points clear of United and with two games in hand.

Three days later, Everton produced another excellent display when they beat Sunderland 4-1. The Toffees were in the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup and the FA Cup, plus they were looking strong at the top of the league. A fine 5-0 win for United over Stoke City at Old Trafford kept Atkinson and his men in touch.

When Manchester United crossed the Pennines to Yorkshire for a midweek game at Sheffield Wednesday, they knew a victory would bring them within one point of Everton. Typically, United lost 1-0. Everton now had three games in hand. It was looking far more likely that the league championship was heading to the blue half of Merseyside.

The following weekend both clubs were in FA Cup semi-final action. Manchester United headed to Everton’s Goodison Park stadium for a showdown with Liverpool, Everton facing Luton Town at Villa Park. Both matches were dramatic and with the added bonus of the neutral venue. The excitement of the two semi-finals was enhanced by the Saturday kick-offs and the prize of a Wembley final at stake.

At Villa Park, Everton looked to be heading out of the cup. Trailing to a first-half Ricky Hill goal, they needed Kevin Sheedy to level with five minutes to go. His free kick meant the game would go to extra time.

On Merseyside, United knew that the FA Cup was their best chance of silverware. Liverpool, however, were now one step away from the European Cup final and despite tailing off in the league, could still win two cups. With just over twenty minutes left, the deadlock was broken in this tense affair. United’s captain gave his side the lead and with Liverpool’s attack being handled well by Robson’s defenders, Wembley beckoned.

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But Liverpool were the team of the 1980s and never gave up. With only three minutes to play, Ronnie Whelan curled a shot past Bailey to level the tie. He had already broken United’s hearts with the 1983 League Cup final winner. He was back to haunt them again. As at Villa Park, extra time was required.

Despite the goal from Whelan, United came out of the blocks quickly and regained the lead. It came through their in-form number ten, Stapleton, and during the first period of extra time. Joe Fagan’s team looked beaten, Atkinson had somehow lifted his troops from the blow of a late equaliser to go in front for a second time. The clock was ticking.

In the other game, it looked like a replay was most likely. Still locked at 1-1, 115 minutes had been played. Kevin Sheedy stood over another free-kick. This was a chance to put the ball into the Luton box. He did just that and central defender Derek Mountfield rose to plant a header past Les Sealey and send Everton to Wembley. A 2-1 win. Luton were devastated. Five minutes from victory in normal time and then five minutes from a replay. It was not to be for The Hatters.

Back at Goodison, referee George Courtney looked at his watch. One minute to go. As Liverpool went forward, the linesmen raised his flag for offside. That would surely be their last opportunity to level. He either didn’t see it, or chose to ignore it but Courtney played on. Liverpool continued to push.

Bailey saved Ian Rush’s header, but the ball was loose. Paul Walsh could not believe his luck. An easy chance and it was now 2-2. Atkinson gestured at the referee about the flag. The goal stood and seconds later the whistle blew for full-time. Twice Liverpool looked out of it, and both times they found an equaliser. All all-Merseyside FA Cup final was still on the cards.

The replay was set for Wednesday 17th April. And this time it was going to be in Manchester, at Maine Road, home of second division City.

The night before Everton won 4-1 at home to West Brom. Their lead was looking untouchable. The short journey across the city for Atkinson now represented their only hope of a trophy. The fans knew it, and deep down so did the manager.

What would the psychological impact be on his players? They were so close to the final on two occasions. Would the feeling of injustice about the offside flag spur Manchester United on?

Big Ron was not going to deliver the league title in his fourth term at Old Trafford. He needed to rally his team because they were in the last chance saloon now. If not, the season was over.